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The Management of State property: Whose business is it, anyway?

Published Thursday 4th November 2004


Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt. Hope.
Photo: Shirley Bahadur

This week we begin to draw together some of the matters related to State property which we have touched on in the past.

We will examine this in three parts—today, we begin with a look at some of the key issues, followed in the next fortnight by a discussion of the policy options in dealing with those issues and we will end with the various State bodies which are responsible for this critical area.

In order to draw proper conclusions, it is important to set out the nature and extent of state property. For most of us that phrase would mean state lands, including estates like the Petrotrin and Caroni lands. While that view is essentially true, the fact is that state property extends far beyond those areas and would include other parts such as the leasehold estates. Some of these are St Clair, Woodbrook and the other leasehold estates in areas like Diego Martin (River Estate and Diamond Vale), Santa Cruz and so on.

Although it is beyond the scope of this series, we should note that our mineral and seabed/marine resources are also part of the stock of state property.

The key issues which emerge in considering the management of state property are—maintenance—This one has to be top of the list. Unless you are building property for sale, maintenance is a critical issue to all property investors and, in the case of state properties, we have perennial concerns. We are all fed-up of the sight of crumbling public buildings—post offices, police stations, schools and so on. To me, they speak to a kind of contempt for the taxpaying public who have to use these facilities, not to mention the public servants who are also bound to put up with the deplorable conditions.

We hear very often, from both political parties, of the drive towards “developed nation status.” If we are to have any chance of achieving that goal, we need to develop new norms for the maintenance and cleaning of public property. The simple fact is that, as our elders taught us “A stitch in time saves nine”; it is cheaper to regularly maintain a property than to carry out last-ditch repairs. It seems to be the norm here to let one of these vital public buildings reach a state of virtual collapse before announcing either an expensive series of repairs or, even more questionable, its replacement by a new building. To put the issue in economic terms, when one of these properties reaches that point of virtual collapse we have depleted that asset prematurely by mismanagement.

It’s like buying a new car, which ought to give five to seven years’ service and then destroying the engine by failing to service it regularly.

Project fever

Following from the last point, in a situation where the State seems incapable of managing its assets, we are also accustomed to the regular announcements of mega projects.

From the Mount Hope Complex ,at a time when the existing hospitals were (and still are) crumbling, to the wave of new police stations put up by the UNC while others were crumbling, the picture is not encouraging. Quite a few of the “new” post offices and police stations are now themselves in need of basic maintenance.

Yet, the new projects are announced at a dizzying speed, from the new ministerial buildings—health and public administration to name just two—to the new revenue authority complex to house Customs & Excise and the Board of Inland Revenue. One is bound to wonder at the sense of all this. Will they be eyesores in the next decade?

When we consider these matters, it is important to know that, because property is such a long-term investment, the decisions we make today have long-term impact.

We are thinking about the alleged corruption almost 50 years ago in the allocation of gas station sites. The result is that we have three such in lower Maraval, within yards of each other, while St Ann’s/Cascade has none. Even though we know what went wrong at that stage of our development, we have been unable to right the misallocation of resources.

These are our resources and we can be sure that no minister or senior public servant would allow their home or businessplace—yes, we know that ministers are not supposed to have businesses, but you know what I mean—to crumble in that fashion. The lesson can be applied in many other areas if we think about it.

It is the largest and most unknown territory we know, but face it we must. A good beginning is to honestly consider the errors of the past.

We need a strategy to deal with the needs of the future.

Next week we set out some policy options for the management of State property.

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

These are our resources and we can be sure that no minister or senior public servant would allow their home or business place to crumble in that fashion.